I just had the pleasure of listening to the podcast of a recent interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert on the radio program On Being. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, has entitled the program "Choosing Curiosity Over Fear," which is a concept that Gilbert discusses during the interview. But that concept grows out of a more basic epiphany that Gilbert had, which was realizing that the commonly used advice, "Follow your passion" (sometimes stated as "Follow your bliss") could be crippling to creativity.
Why might this be so? Because words such as "passion" and "bliss" are loaded. How often do we experience those states of mind? They are tremendously heightened states, and I don't think it's even possible to maintain them for any length of time. I love writing, but, much as I enjoy it, I don't often feel passionate or blissful about it.
Curiosity is a much gentler word. It is a state of mind that can be held lightly—and can be maintained over the long run. I'm always curious about writing. One of my favorite epigrams about the writing process is, "How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?" (This could be rephrased for fiction as, "How do I know what the story is going to be until I see what I write?") Writing is a process of discovery, not of building something preconceived.
Being curious is also childlike. It gets us back to that simpler state of mind when we used to do things just because we were interested in them—not because we were trying to achieve anything in particular or thought we had to prove something. It was exploration unfettered by expectations—or, at least, by significant expectations. The main expectation was that it would be interesting, and that was enough.
And it ought to be enough. Too often, we stop ourselves before we really get started because our expectations are too high. Either we expect the experience of writing to be more exciting than it usually is (Gilbert believes that 90% of any creative process is boring) or we expect to be more excited about what we produce each time we sit down (which is a good time to remember the epigram, "Mediocrity is a starting place"). But if we're motivated by curiosity, we'll always be interested in what we might come up with, or what might come through us, next, or in what we might do with a mediocre piece to make it better.
On a larger scale, expecting to experience passion/bliss during creativity, or expecting the writing life to be passionate/blissful, sometimes leads a writer to believe that he's "not really" a writer. I certainly felt this many times during my life. It took me a long time to get to the point where, essentially, the whole experience of writing and being a writer became a process of following my curiosity. Now, if an idea arouses my curiosity, I go with it, as far as that curiosity takes me—which could be a few lines of a poem, a few paragraphs of a short story, half-a-chapter of a novel. If my curiosity continues, the piece continues; if not, I put it aside.
And if I don't have any ideas that arouse my curiosity, I don't write. I no longer believe, as I used to, that I have to write almost daily in order to be a writer. I am a writer. I will always be a writer. And when something arouses my curiosity, I will write about it.
Follow your curiosity. It will take you where you need to go.